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Bookshare: A distinct way to enjoy reading

When recent visitor to Manila Brad Turner, vice president and general manager of Global Education and Literacy of Benetech, said his office is in Silicon Valley, one was impressed enough. But one was even more awed and impressed when in the same breath, he said, no, he does not count shares of stocks, but how many more readers there are on Bookshare that day. Bookshare is the digital initiative of benetec, a nonprofit that serves as the bridge between the social sector and Silicon Valley; it also focuses on human rights and poverty alleviation.

Bookshare is today the largest accessible online library for the visually impaired, with titles from 900 international publishers that include Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Macmillan Learning, Taylor & Francis Group, Wiley, Duke University Press, Chronicle Books, Simon & Schuster. It is specifically meant to benefit individuals with visual difficulties, like blindness and dyslexia, but also those with low vision, cerebral palsy, or the inability to hold a book or see the printed page differently.

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What makes Bookshare distinct is that its collection of now 767,000-plus titles provides the visually impaired with high-quality reading in both content and format, in the same manner required by people without disabilities. Bookshare is a content partner program with participating publishers who provide high-quality files of their titles in EPUB 2 or 3, which Bookshare then converts into accessible formats like digital braille, with enhanced features such as enlarged fonts and audio with text highlighting.

Publishers grant Bookshare the rights to make the content available in countries where they hold rights, making these available in over 90 countries today, beyond the United States where it first began to serve the visually impaired population. Bookshare is accessible only to those with a certified proof of disability from a medical professional. These e-books may be accessed by qualifying members on assistive technology devices, computers, tablets, smartphones.

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At the 2nd Accessible Publishing Workshop sponsored two days ago by Benetech Bookshare and St. Matthew’s Publishing, I was most impressed that, aside from Turner, among the speakers were Agnes Angeles, country representative of Bookshare Philippines; Dandy Victa, project development officer of the National Council of Disability Affairs; and Allan R. Mesoga, a blind employee of the Department of Education-Bureau of Learning Delivery who walked us through the intricate process of print to accessible conversion. He had a PowerPoint presentation and was aided by his braille laptop reader. Also on hand was his wife, Sylvia, herself one of the skilled converters for accessible text. One of Bookshare’s most ardent advocates, Allan has also been a panelist for the National Book Development Board’s (NBDB) Philippine International Literary Festival in 2018 and 2019.

Mesoga was Angeles’ best example of the worlds that the visually impaired can explore, given all the opportunities provided the rest of the population. Being blind certainly does not mean one is less intelligent or competent.

November is Philippine Reading Month, the time of year when teachers and librarians pay greater attention to books and reading. I have always advocated putting a book in every child’s hand, the necessary step to true freedom, learning and empowerment. But there is another large sector of our population to consider, the visually impaired—450,000 students below 21 years old and 500,000 adults who are blind or with low vision. When we booklovers cannot imagine a life without books and the NBDB is mandated to promote a reading culture for all, it behooves us to think of all those who cannot similarly enjoy the pleasures of reading—and the least we can do is to make printed materials accessible to all. Bookshare is a much-awaited beginning for the visually impaired, whose right to read must be upheld.

Here’s an open invitation to all from the Book Development Association of the Philippines and the NBDB: Come to the first Book Industry Summit on Nov. 20-21 at Megatrade Hall 3, SM Megamall. The Aklatan All Filipino book fair will also take place simultaneously. There are no admission fees. Do visit the NBDB website www.booksphilippines.gov.ph or our Facebook page for more information.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the NBDB and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: books, bookshare, Brad Turner, Reading
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